THE ISLAND; OR,
A JUSTIFICATION FOR MEANINGLESS TRAVELS
“… Fifteen versts from Chosha to the river Golubnitsa, fifteen versts from the Golubnitsa To the river Perepusk.
From the Perepusk twenty versts; then the river Vizhas; from the Vizhas 27 versts to the river Vama.
From the Vama ten versts to two rivers, both called the Snapnitsa. Thirty versts from the two Snapnitsas is the river Pesha.
And into the Pesha from the mountains of Bol’shoi Kamen’ Flows the river Poiasa.
It is 230 versts from the Bol’shoi Kamen’ down to the sea. And from the mouth of the river Pesha lie 25 versts by sea To the Malaia Pesha.
Beyond the Malaia Pesha is the river Reshitel’nitsa; from the Reshitel’nitsa lie 30 versts to the river Longa; from the Longa lie 30 verts to the river Saia.
Thirty versts from the Saia is the river Chornaia; from the Chornaia lie 30 versts to the river Vasil’eva; and at the mouth of this river the Bol’shoi Kamen’ mountains meet the sea.
Beyond the Kamen’ a river flows into the sea; and from this river it is twenty versts to the river Indega, and flowing against and away from the Kamen’ hills, the Men’shii Kamen’, and the course of this river is 170 versts.
From Indega it is twenty versts to the river Zheleznai; beyond the Zheleznaia is the river Gornostai. And in the sea between these rivers lies the island of Sviatoi Nos; and the length of this island is thirty versts; and across the sea from Sviatoi Nos lies the island of Kalguev; and from Kalguev to the coastline lie 120 versts; and on the island of Kalguev three rivers flow into the sea: the Byrianka, the Vialimka, and the river …
And this island measures 100 versts in length, and 50 versts in width …”
“Kniga Bol’shomy Chertezhu”, 1627.
In an icy hotel room. Beneath two blankets. In woolen sweat pants. Night. Rain outside my window.
Why? What for? Suddenly I feel like eating something, I feel like taking a hot shower. What am I looking for? The island? That was discovered long before me. The island is my absurd fiction there’s no need for a vivid imagination to sketch what’s out there. Flatness. Tundra. Low gray sky pitted with dark clouds that look like ploughed fields. Hazy leaden sun that you’ll never even see through the clouds. Stunted grass shivering in the wind and a triumph of summer’s splendor actual chamomile. The smell of damp, moorland all around, and a coastline redolent of nothing but clay, because for some reason the water here is odorless. Icyyellow….
Otherwise everything should be the same as it is here in Nar’yanMar, only worse. The same cold, the same poverty….
By the second day in my hotel there’s no water or heat. I haul water up in a cooking pot from the hydrant outside. In the morning, it’s enough for washing up, flushing the toilet, making tea; in the evening, enough for washing up, wiping myself down with a damp washcloth, flushing the toilet, making tea. On the third floor of the hotel there’s a door marked “Buffet.” I’ve never seen it open. And this is a new hotel, the most expensive in town. The best….
I’m grumbling again. At night fearful thoughts swim through my head, like shoals of fish. Sometimes the shoals are bigger, sometimes smaller. Sometimes I can’t even think at all, all manner of anxieties flash and dart around like herring.
All this because I’m forced to wait here in this unfamiliar city for a helicopter. Muscovites can’t stand waiting. Journalists least of all.
I know stray thoughts always occur afterward. After the thing is done. And there’s no sense in paying any attention whatsoever to these shoals of fish. But I have sinusitis. I am suffering physically from the cold. And this rain, day after day….
And what about Korepanov, what he said, that there are two parallel streams of time on the island sober time and drunk time? That it’s better not to float in the second one…. The more interesting and charming someone is when he’s sober, the worse he’ll be when he’s drunk. An observation more fundamental than it seems. Korepanov knows whereof he speaks: he spent three years on the island as the man in charge. I recall for some reason his account of how the island comes to life in spring: the March sun spills over the ice with a pale and rosy light, and suddenly, amidst the deafening silence, the slap of the beluga’s tail against the sea’s dark surface … I recall his tales of the molepeople … and knives….
Knives … I wasn’t prepared for that. To be perfectly frank, I’m scared. My romantic notions of this trip have proven illusory: there is nothing less romantic than the Far North today. And now I’m scared I won’t find what I hoped to find. “Omnia praeclara rara.” [Marcus Tullius Cicero] I was warned by the ancients. And little has changed throughout two millennia of European history, except we rely on modern languages to convey eternal truths: “Beauty is a rare thing.” [Ornette Coleman ]Even in music, damn it. From all I’ve read about the Far North, it seemed like it might be possible to find traces of a certain primordial beauty here. But from what I’ve learned, it’s obvious that I’m far more likely to encounter stumble upon something totally depressing, even dangerous, like a knife in the hand of a drunk….
Again. A shoal of fish. Shoo! Beating my oar in the water, on my raft in my hotel room bed! Beat it, herring!
I jump off my raft, barefoot, and cautiously step onto the icy floor. I walk over to the window. In the dense rain and fog, the gray concrete highrises of Nar’yanMar. This strange city where I’ve somehow ended up. No. I’ve come of my own free will. In search of something. In search of what? Some meaning. The meaning of life. I know it sounds stupid, even pompous, but what else can we do when faced with the meaninglessness of existence?
It’s the war here’s something serious, something seriously meaningless. Thousands murdered. Killed by one another. Drained of meaning. In Sumgait. In Karabakh. In Baku…. The list just grows and grows, like a cancerous tumor. Family, home, a world of individual people, their labors and their pleasures, drained of all meaning, a harvest of death. We must look the truth in the eye, look the povertystricken in the eye, look desperate refugees in the eye, look even in the frozen eyes of the murdered. Human life isn’t worth a penny. The price of power today. Money. Raw materials. Weapons.
Isn’t it strange how the only things that have any real value are those things that deface life, that disfigure it, that alter it, that destroy it, that keep it from asserting itself, that keep the stone from being joined to other stones, that keep the sapling from growing into a mighty tree. Hate has its own laws.
Once again we’re living in end times.
I do not believe in “human rights,” but I do believe that it is our humanity that makes us human. Man’s fate, whether insulted or injured, robbed of his allotment, is a celebration of meaninglessness and death. In whose name has blood not been shed? Even in the name of the lord. In the name of all that unites people in their shared humanity, the disenfranchised call for people to hate one another all the more. And when they succeed, they seed the soul with hate, black as pitch. For the soul is destined to be the seat of if not love, then hate. Without meaning there is only meaninglessness.
So where do I fit into this?
On the street two days ago I saw a man taking advantage of a brief pause in the rain to nail to the shed in his yard a brandnew pole with a platform for starlings to nest on. When he was done, he tapped the nailhead lightly with his hammer a few times, and, satisfied, rubbed the pole with his palm, happy to have accomplished something. I was on my way to a restaurant at the other end of town, hungry and frozen stiff, and my first thought was that the starlings would be unlikely to make use of this man’s hospitality. The summers here are too short, too damp, and too cold. And it was already August, their offsprings had fledged long before, it was time for the starlings to fly off, not look for a place to nest….
I stopped and asked whether starlings ever came to this region.
“No, never,” he said mildly, putting his hammer back in his pocket, and, disinclined to engage in trivial conversation, went back to his house.
So, was his act meaningless? No. It was just his memory of the joys of spring, borne upon the fluttering wings of starlings from India and Persia, the joyful rustle of the sounds of life, as pure as a spring, in the garden of the family home, or within a budding grove on the outskirts of some long abandoned town where the birdsong rolls in echoes through the fresh green of spring. No starling will ever nest on that platform. But that platform is his prayer. With it he asks for fulfillment, for the springtime torrent of life.
And what does the gunman pray for, finger on the trigger of his automatic weapon? For death.
For more like him, the disenfranchised because it is only they who, having been uprooted from their own soil, having been abandoned to their fate, can share the bread of hate with one another. Here in Nar’yanMar I heard about the outbreak of war in Abkhazia on the radio. I heard about mercenaries, “irregulars,” bombing runs carried out against cities by airplanes with no visible markings. I heard that all the apes at the Sukhumi primate institute were killed by automatic weapons fire…. For some reason I was particularly disturbed by this…. And I understand: after what happened later in Central Asia and in Chechnya, it’s kind of impossible to speak of apes. Nevertheless. The superstition on Gibraltar that the rock will stand as long as the Barbary apes remain yields an unexpected meaning. If the apes are gone, the rock will fall….
Why? It is not for us to know.
But three years have passed. In Sukhumi people huddle amidst the rubble. They stand in endless lines for long hours to buy a loaf of slimy, underbaked bread. They scrounge for cigarette butts. Mimosa trees, plane trees, palm trees, all cut down for firewood. At the old beachside cafes the holes in the pavement serve as reminders that in summers past striped and fringed umbrellas were mounted on the sidewalks. The rusted skeletons of abandoned boats and autos are strewn along the sand. Neighborhoods that used to hum with life now lie in ashes, deserted by their inhabitants. Feral dogs roam the streets. Oncebeautiful villas, blackened with smoke, their roofs collapsed, stand like giant termite mounds. Sandstone walls lie bare beneath the plaster, as though the stones themselves understand that their servitude to men is over, and that they should return to the wild, to nature, to the eternal cycle….
This is the payback. Not only for the apes, but for the very stones themselves. And for all the hate, for which the soul has been trained by its master.
War breaks out where people want war. I do not know why. Perhaps so that people faced with an enemy feel themselves welded together by blood? So that they might partake in the crime’s forbidden pleasures? So that they might find a worthy leader to trust in battle?
But in this case is it just the pleasure in the transgression itself? Is it just that people are only united as a nation when at war? Or does the leader appear when the people believe in him?
It may be that wars break out so that people might finally remember God, who created mankind out of the disenfranchised. But how long must we go on before people can at last free themselves from the prophets of hate? Oh, that’s a long way off…. Sukhumi is still standing. Men in stained and wrinkled shirts, holding automatic weapons in strong hands, have only just begun to rage, suffused with pleasure at this thoughtless, cruel game, and never for a moment guessing that in war no one is spared. Not even them. Automatic weapons are machines wellsuited for slaughter, but poorlysuited for protection. Not against the deaths of loved ones. Not against cold, loneliness, despair, meaninglessness.…
It was still summer, sultry. Sheep in abundance on foreign farms, wine in abundance in foreign cellars. I think our strategy should be to drive the enemy back just beyond the vineyard fence that’s it. We could declare victory….
What keeps us from doing this?
I’ve brought two books with me: the journals of Mikhail Prishvin and a wonderful collection of stories by Boris Shergin about men at work in the Far North mariners, tax collectors, storytellers, carpenters, trappers. Hardly anyone seems to have escaped Shergin’s notice. A big book, inconvenient to lug around, but I had to buy it, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to find it in Moscow, and it’s an wonderful book. Especially its meditations on human destiny. One sees this in Prishvin’s journals as well, an ongoing interrogation into the meaning of life and by means of this interrogation, an astonishing dive deep into the self, into the life of nature….
“For many years,” I read in Shergin, “I have recorded the spoken language of my homeland, here in the former Arkhangel’sk guberniia. I fish for oral pearls on the steamers and schooners, on the piers and the singing rivers of our Far North….”
Shergin gives one the impression of a man of extraordinary integrity and consistency. Nowhere in his diaries does one find the slightest crack or fissure, so characteristic of our contemporary writers.…
Prishvin, on the other hand, struggled for many years before finally coming to a tranquil understanding of himself and his task, having undergone a great deal, testing himself constantly, traveling, coming into contact with all sorts of people. Innumerable journal entries, particularly in his younger years, depict a hopeless inner conflict, although every trace of this vanishes in his mature years, when his spiritual struggles had subsided. An example, taken from one of his travels through Asia: “One must die on one’s own….” All of the journeys of his youth deal with dying on one’s own, uraza in Kirghiz, a special providence abstracted from everything habitual. And the ordinary self as well: Prishvin learned a great deal in his travels, which later enabled him to free himself from his pain, and become a whole human being. That’s something I find particularly valuable in his journals of this period….
Yesterday I went to Pechora, to the harbor, by an old house I’d noticed the day I arrived. A large and sootcovered house with windows which once must have looked directly onto the river, but which now faced a long fence surrounding the port. I was intrigued did someone live there? It was difficult to tell. Moss and wild chamomile grew on the roof. The kitchen garden lay fallow, only a tiny bed dotted with sprigs of dill attested to the fact that someone still lived, was living out her days, within this house. And then the front door opened, and a wizened little woman in a white headscarf peered out. I hailed her, one thing led to another, and she invited me in, to treat me to tea and pickled carrots and smoked salmon.
And she told me her story.
About how once upon a time the Pechora flooded, its banks overflowing like the sea, how she had gone out with her grandfather, astonished by this great watery mirror, and how they had rowed, almost flying, over the drowned meadows, the fields of hay, the brush along the riverbanks….
“Grandpa, where is the riverbank?” There was no riverbank, only a rowboat, gliding across the transparent blue, grandfather and granddaughter together in that rowboat….
And she spoke of her husband, who took her out of the village and into the city. Seemingly never giving a thought as to whether their life was rich or poor, happy or sad. Life was just hard, and they would get through it together, rowing against the current. Then all of a sudden he was gone. And she understood that for her he had been the dearest, closest, most reliable person in the whole world….
He used to work for three days at a stretch, setting the beacons and checked the river markers. One day he left for his shift, taking the food his wife had packed with him. He said goodbye. He left. As always. And hardly had he closed the door behind him when something began burning within her: longing. Longing for a happiness that would never be. She ran down to the harbor office after her husband, but he was gone. Down to the docks. Gone. The barge was already gone, down the river. Three days later they brought him home, dead. Earlier he had complained of a headache, something painful squeezing his head. He who had never complained about anything at all before….
What broke her weak heart, what shattered it forever, was the death of her fourteen-year-old son, a long time coming and she loved the boy all the more for it, maybe because he took after his mother: slender and delicate. One day he went swimming in the Pechora; he caught a chill, and later, drying off by the fire with the other boys, he started coughing. She couldn’t take him in for treatment because she had to go to work, and she couldn’t treat him herself, except give him pills, nothing else. When they admitted him to the hospital it turned out he had pneumonia, and week by week he grew thinner and because he was tall for his age, he was placed in a ward filled with grown men from the countryside, and they smoked all the time. ‘Mama, it’s not good for me here, ‘he said….”
“And then they placed him in quarantine, along with two peasants from Kotkino who had typhoid fever. I went to the head doctor to take him home, he’d been there for so long, and he wasn’t getting any better, and now with this typhoid…. ‘Give him to me,’’ I said…. ‘No,’’ the doctor said, ‘he’s very ill, we can’t discharge him when he’’s this sick, his abdomen is severely distended….’
“I go and look: his stomach is all swollen, that’s it … I ask the doctor, ‘Does this mean he’s going to die?’
“He died. I couldn’t sleep for a month. I lost twenty pounds….”
As luck would have it, my tape recorder broke right before I left, and I had to keep the record button pressed down with my finger the entire time. After an hour and a half my finger was so sore that it was trembling and numb. But I want to know how is a person’s life formed, what stays with them into old age, and what’s the most important thing to them?
She once dreamt of the edge of a forest. A wild currant bush. Ablaze with red berries. Time passed. She went back to Maritsa, the village she came from, and went out into the woods. She came to a clearing of hayfields and gasped. For she saw the exact same scene as in her dream. The same line of trees, the same wild currant bush, the same red blaze of berries. The edge of the forest: all that green, and shadowy gaps between the trees and the waving grass, and then this one bush, seemingly in flames….
So what was this life, looking back? The Pechora in flood when she was a child, the death of her husband, the shock of never being able to love him again, the death of her son, which rendered her motherhood utterly pointless and then this dream, which came true.
Why this, I don’t know. But what else can I add to this: “Grandpa, where is the riverbank?” The waters had covered the earth, and no place for the birds to build their nests….
The day after tomorrow no, tomorrow I’ll have my helicopter. I’ll finally get to see my island. For what for something which I’ll know when I see it. I’m not sure if I’m doing everything right, or even if I’m doing the best I can, but as long as I can create my island, stitch it together from my own dreams, references, and fragmentary narratives, then I can live. It has to come true.
“I’m doing it!” I jump back up on the raft of my hotel bed, pull the covers over my head, and fall asleep.
VASILII GOLOVANOV has been compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, Defoe, and Stevenson by Russian critics. He is one of the world’s great practitioners of creative non-fiction. A novelist, journalist, and photographer, Golovanov was born in Moscow in 1960, the son of the journalist Iaroslav Golovanov. A graduate of the school of journalism at Moscow State University, he has spent his literary career as a reporter and correspondent for Russian newspapers and magazines such as Literaturnaia gazeta, Obshchaia gazeta,Ogonek, Novaia iunost’, Stolitsa, and Vokrug sveta, as well as literary journals such as Novyi mir, Druzhba narodov, Znamia, and Oktiabr’. During his career he has reported from throughout the former Soviet Union, particularly conflict and crisis zones in the South and North Caucasus, in Central Asia, the Russian Arctic, and Kamchatka. A self-described practitioner of “geopoetics,” Golovanov has published five books.
About the Translator:
ADAM SIEGEL is a writer and translator from Central and Eastern European languages. He holds degrees from the Defense Language Institute, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Berkeley, and San José State University. His awards include an NEA Literary Translation fellowship. His translations of authors such as Vasilij Golovanov, Viktor Shklovskij, Hubert Fichte, Hans Henny Jahnn, Thomas Bernhard, George Saiko and others, have been published or are forthcoming in venues such as Conjunctions, Context, The Brooklyn Rail, B O D Y, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Solar Luxuriance Press. His translation of “Hedda Gabler” was staged by the Art Theater of Davis in 2014. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in venues such as Solar Luxuriance Press, Streetnotes, XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics, ActionYes, Caketrain, and elsewhere. He is languages and literatures bibliographer at the University of California, Davis.